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Understanding the Language of SOAP Notes in Occupational Therapy

Documentation is crucial in healthcare, laying the foundation for effective patient care, communication, and treatment planning. For occupational therapists, maintaining accurate and detailed records is essential in ensuring patients receive personalized, high-quality care to enhance their functional abilities. Proper documentation enables therapists to collaborate efficiently with other healthcare professionals, monitor patients' progress, make informed decisions about treatment plans, and meet ethical and legal obligations.

If you've ever encountered the term 'SOAP notes' in the context of occupational therapy, you might be wondering what these notes are and why they are essential in this field. This blog post will explore SOAP notes, their importance in occupational therapy, and how practitioners document their patients' progress.

Breaking Down the Components of SOAP Notes:

Subjective (S):

The subjective component represents the patient's perspective, including their feelings, experiences, and concerns about their condition or therapy. It consists of information from the patient (or caregiver) through interviews and conversations. Some examples of subjective data include the patient's pain level, emotions, and personal observations about their progress.

Items to Include in the Subjective Section of a SOAP Note:

  • Patient's chief complaint

  • Description of symptoms

  • Patient's self-reported progress

  • Patient's goals and expectations

  • Emotional well-being

  • Social and environmental factors

  • Barriers to therapy

  • Patient's self-management strategies

  • Pain levels or discomfort

Objective (O):

Objective data are the measurable and observable aspects of the patient's condition, therapy, and progress. The therapist gathers this information through observation, assessments, and standardized tests. Objective data can include vital signs, range of motion, strength, endurance, and changes in the patient's functional abilities.

Items to Include in the Objective Section of a SOAP Note:

  • Observable signs and symptoms

  • Vital signs (e.g., blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate)

  • Results of assessments or tests

  • Range of motion measurements

  • Strength or muscle testing

  • Sensory or functional tests

  • Gait or mobility observations

  • Posture assessment

  • Assistive device usage

  • Observations of ADLs and IADLs performance

Analysis (A):

The analysis component is where the therapist analyzes the subjective and objective data to form a clinical impression of the patient's progress, challenges, and needs. It involves evaluating the effectiveness of the interventions, identifying any barriers to progress, and determining the patient's overall response to therapy. The therapist may also make clinical judgments about the patient's condition and whether their goals are being met.

Items to Include in the Analysis Section of a SOAP Note:

  • Interpretation of subjective and objective findings

  • Clinical reasoning and problem identification

  • Progress toward therapy goals

  • Changes in the patient's condition or functional abilities

  • Identification of barriers or facilitators for therapy

  • Evaluation of treatment effectiveness

  • Any needed modifications to the treatment plan

Plan (P):

The plan section outlines the next steps in the patient's treatment, which may involve modifying existing interventions, introducing new ones, or setting new goals. This section helps therapists establish a roadmap for the patient's therapy and ensures that the treatment plan is tailored to the patient's specific needs and objectives.

Items to Include in the Plan Section of a SOAP Note:

  • Treatment goals and objectives

  • Short-term and long-term goals

  • Specific interventions or strategies

  • Frequency and duration of therapy sessions

  • Recommendations for home exercises or activities

  • Coordination with other healthcare professionals

  • Plans for re-assessment or evaluation

  • Patient education or counselling

  • Referrals to other services or specialists, if needed

A Case Study and SOAP Notes in Action

In the previous section, we explored the use of SOAP notes by occupational therapists for documenting their patients' progress. Now, let's delve into a case study to illustrate how SOAP notes function in a real-world scenario, making it simpler to comprehend their practical application.


Mr. Smith, a 70-year-old retired engineer, was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease two years ago. He lives with his wife in a single-story home, where she assists him with daily tasks as his primary caregiver. Before his diagnosis, Mr. Smith has a history of leading an active lifestyle, enjoying hobbies such as gardening and woodworking. However, the progression of his symptoms has caused increased difficulties in activities of daily living (ADLs) and instrumental activities of daily living (IADLs), impacting his ability to engage in these meaningful activities and maintain his previous level of independence.

Mr. Smith's primary concerns include difficulty with fine motor tasks such as buttoning clothes, handwriting, and maintaining balance during transfers and ambulation. He also struggles with gross motor tasks, exhibiting bradykinesia and rigidity, which have led to challenges in moving smoothly and efficiently. Additionally, Mr. Smith has mild cognitive impairments, mainly affecting his attention, memory, and problem-solving skills. This cognitive decline has further complicated his ability to manage daily tasks and adapt to his changing physical abilities.

Subjective (S):

Mr. Smith, a 70-year-old male with Parkinson's disease, reports increased difficulty in performing daily tasks such as buttoning clothes, handwriting, and maintaining balance during transfers and ambulation. He mentions that his symptoms have worsened over the past few months. Mr. Smith expresses concerns about his ability to live independently and his overall safety, particularly when navigating stairs or preparing meals. He also describes feelings of frustration and sadness due to his declining physical abilities and their impact on his daily life and relationships.

Objective (O):

  1. Fine motor skills: Mr. Smith struggles with tasks requiring precision, such as buttoning his shirt, using utensils, and writing. His handwriting has become illegible due to micrographia.

  2. Gross motor skills: He exhibits bradykinesia and rigidity, impacting his ability to move smoothly and efficiently. Mr. Smith experiences difficulty maintaining balance while walking, especially during turns and navigating uneven surfaces.

  3. Activities of daily living: Mr. Smith requires assistance with dressing, grooming, and bathing due to decreased dexterity and balance.

  4. Cognitive function: Mr. Smith has mild cognitive impairments, mainly affecting his attention, memory, and problem-solving skills.

Analysis (A):

Mr. Smith's Parkinson's disease has led to significant fine and gross motor skill challenges, negatively affecting his ability to perform ADLs and IADLs independently. His physical limitations and mild cognitive impairments have further exacerbated his difficulties in managing daily tasks and maintaining a sense of autonomy. As his symptoms have progressed, Mr. Smith's confidence in navigating his home environment has diminished, increasing his reliance on his wife for assistance with daily activities. These challenges include not only the physical and cognitive limitations imposed by Parkinson's disease but also the psychosocial factors that may contribute to his feelings of frustration, sadness, and anxiety about the future. By addressing these multifaceted aspects of Mr. Smith's situation, occupational therapy can help him regain independence and improve his functional abilities.

Plan (P):

  1. Improve fine motor skills: Introduce adaptive equipment, such as button hooks and built-up utensils, to facilitate easier completion of tasks. Implement exercises to increase hand dexterity and coordination.

  2. Enhance mobility and balance: Incorporate balance exercises and gait training to improve Mr. Smith's stability during transfers and ambulation. Provide education on safe transfer techniques and fall prevention strategies.

  3. Increase independence in ADLs: Modify the home environment to promote safety and ease of use, such as installing grab bars in the bathroom and using non-slip mats. Teach energy conservation techniques to help Mr. Smith complete tasks more efficiently.

  4. Address cognitive challenges: Implement cognitive strategies to improve attention, memory, and problem-solving skills. Encourage the use of compensatory techniques, such as checklists and calendars, to enhance organization and daily planning.

  5. Schedule regular follow-ups to monitor Mr. Smith's progress and adjust the intervention plan as needed.

Best Practices and Common Mistakes

Best Practices for SOAP Notes:

  1. Use clear, concise language: Write your SOAP notes in a straightforward manner that effectively communicates the necessary information.

  2. Maintain objectivity: Focus on providing factual information, especially in the Objective section, while avoiding personal opinions or biases.

  3. Be thorough and detailed: Include all relevant information about the patient's situation, progress, and treatment plan.

  4. Employ consistent terminology: Use standard medical and occupational therapy terms to clarify and prevent confusion.

  5. Document in a timely manner: Complete your SOAP notes promptly after your session with the patient to ensure accuracy and up-to-date information.

  6. Protect patient privacy: Adhere to privacy and confidentiality guidelines and your organization's policies to safeguard the patient's personal information.

  7. Proofread your notes: Double-check for grammar, spelling, punctuation errors, and ensure clarity and consistency in your SOAP notes.

Common Mistakes to Avoid in SOAP Notes:

  1. Using jargon or abbreviations without explanation: Avoid terminology that may be unfamiliar to others reviewing your notes.

  2. Being subjective in the Objective section: The Objective section should focus solely on observable, measurable data and not include personal opinions or interpretations.

  3. Including irrelevant information: Focus on the patient's current situation, progress, and treatment plan, and avoid unnecessary details.

  4. Writing in the first person: SOAP notes should be written in the third person to maintain a professional and objective tone.

  5. Relying solely on memory: Use your notes, assessments, and other documentation to ensure accurate SOAP notes.

  6. Ignoring the patient's perspective: Incorporate the patient's subjective report, concerns, and goals in the Subjective section for a comprehensive understanding of their experience.

  7. Skipping sections: Address all four components (Subjective, Objective, Assessment, and Plan) to provide a complete picture of the patient's situation.


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